My garden is a weed-infested, often soggy mess with its heavy clay soil and my lacklustre plant knowledge (and laziness), but I do love to see other people’s gardens, especially if they hint at being half-way secret and tucked away. And, let’s face it, gardens in the UK are simply magnificent!
There are two ways in which I judge poetry.
First, if it it feels like the top of my head were taken off at first reading (to quote Emily Dickinson). In other words, does it produce a moment of epiphany, of feeling ‘that is what I’ve always thought but never quite found the words to express’ or ‘wow, I didn’t even realise that?’. There are quite a few timely, urgent, angry poems being written now which fulfil that first criteria.
Secondly, are these poems that I will return to again and again, reread, bathe in the sounds and colours, images and smells evoked, and find new meanings every time? Those poetry collections tend to be rarer – there may be one or two poems that I treasure in a collection, but not necessarily all of them.
Seán Hewitt’s debut collection meets both of my criteria. It is not a showy piece of work, but it’s not self-effacing either. Each poem releases little hooks at first reading, which then sink into you and never quite let you go, merely bury themselves deeper and deeper. Because of the beauty of the images, the closeness to nature and the musicality of the language, it is a pleasurable experience… and yet you realise there is a lot of grief, a lot of pain in this poetry as well.
The book is composed of three different parts: the first part is closer to what one might call ‘pure’ nature poetry, although the poet is always mindful how the natural cycle mimics the human life cycle. The natural landscape is also the landscape of the mind. The darkness and stillness of nature and then its rebirth in spring has strong parallels to sinking into disease and depression, and then finding hope and recovery.
I turn home, and all across the floor
the spiked white flowers
light the way. The world is dark
but the wood is full of stars.
Throughout, we also have parallels between the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of the human body, an exploration and celebration of sexuality, particularly queer sexuality, which has been considered ‘unnatural’ for so long.
The second part of the book is a retelling of the story of Suibhne (or Sweeney), a legendary Irish king, who was cursed, became a mad poet and was doomed to wander forevermore, never quite finding rest. This was a myth I was less familiar with, but the tension between transience and permanence, between loneliness and finding a place to call home with loved ones resonated with me, particularly in a year when we have all struggled with not seeing loved ones. Also, the recognition that to love is to open yourself up to the possibility of loss and of being hurt.
There was a time when I thought
the sound of a dove cooing and flitting
over a pond was sweeter than the voices
of friends. There was a time when
I preferred the blackbird and the boom
of a stag belling in a storm. I used to think
that the chanting of the mountain grouse
at dawn had more music than your voice,
but things are different now. Still,
it would be hard to say I wouldn’t rather
live above the bright lake, and eat watercress
in the wood, and be away from sorrow.
The poems in the final part of the book were written mainly in the last few months in the life of the poet’s father, who was suddenly diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and died before the volume was published. There is so much tenderness here, as well as the feeling of being lost without a much loved person.
But hush. No one is coming.
We are handed our lives
by a fierce work. Onto which
blank space will I lock my gaze
when my father
is gone? How am I to wear
his love’s burning mantle?
The language feels very simple, unadorned, but always uncannily ‘right’ in context. There is a lot of restraint here, plenty of breathing space, which makes the impact all the more powerful. This might be called confessional poetry, and certainly there seems to be plenty of autobiographical detail in these poems, but it’s a delicate, elliptical emotion, recollected in tranquillity. The poet himself recognises that this quieter, more personal type of poetry may feel too much like a retreat to an ivory tower at this particular moment. In an interview with the Irish Times, he says:
The lyric poem – its patterning, its rhyme, its insistent “I” – has for me a beauty that is perhaps unfashionable, and might seem to make it isolated from the political imperative. But it is my wager that in speaking of ourselves, we will find readers who share something of that emotion, that experience, that flash of strange perspective. In other words, it is my contention that no poem is ever isolated, if it is done right.
I certainly agree with that. The cover of the book features a rust fungus (also called Tongues of Fire): it is basically a cancer eating at the heart of the juniper bush. Despite its yellow beauty, it is lethal. And that is precisely the effect this volume of poetry has had on me. At a time when so many people have died of a disease we barely see or understand, it feels like an elegy, a way of coping with the unspeakable.
I think you can tell that this was my favourite of the shortlisted titles for the Young Writer of the Year Award. But was it the favourite title overall of the Shadow Panel and did we pick it as our winner? Ah, well, you will have to wait and see…
I’ll be honest: what is being flogged as romantic in most magazines or travel brochures makes my skin crawl: tacky decorations, lots of pink and red, a bathtub at the foot of your bed (all the better to hear the gurgle of water draining, see a spider crawling out of the plughole and have to choose between romance of scum residue or scrubbing the bathtub immediately after use). So I’ve had to create my own definitions of romance.
I was supposed to go to Romania this summer to celebrate my parents’ 80th birthdays (they are on different days, but both in the same year). I was hoping to take the boys for a hike in my beloved mountains, but instead will have to make do with these pictures instead. The first few pictures are from places that were within easy travel distance from Bucharest, so I used to go hiking and skiing there at least once a month when I was a pupil and a student. The last batch show the four seasons in different parts of the country.
N.B. I left Romania in the mid 1990s because it had a corrupt government, merciless exploitative capitalism combined with nostalgia for communist strong men, and because young people seemed to have no future there to fully develop their talents. There are still plenty of things wrong there, but I’m seriously thinking of moving back there in retirement at the latest.
In the spirit of pure escapism, which is what these Friday Fun posts are all about, here are some hotels that I can but dream of… and which might not be available to me even after the restrictions are eased, thanks to their formidable price tags. However, it’s not necessarily the luxury that I’m talking about, but the blissful and harmonious merging with nature.
You are the colour of slate, you smoke in husky float, you describe a butterknife arc. I pluck you out of obscurity from under a bush in my old hometown. Supple-smooth, tripartite with frazzled edges, worn white with grief, you lie supine in both of my hands.
You were once the pinnacle of aviation engineering, now less purposeful than you appear. November, surplus to requirements, your bird doesn’t want you no more. Just like this town doesn’t care if I come or I go.
All I can do: comfort you.
Always knew this day would come.
Soothe through boxing-gloves.
Linking this to Haibun Monday over at dVerse Poets, where we are talking about hometowns. I feel sadly out-of-place in my ‘official’ hometown and am not necessarily welcome in the hometowns of my heart. Like a feather, I’ve been transported across many countries and towns, and I’ve left a little bit of me everywhere.
After reading The Enchanted April and Elizabeth and Her German Garden in quick succession, I have to concede I have fallen in love with the witty, sly, unconventional author best known under the name Elizabeth von Arnim. These two novels are fairy-tales to a certain extent, where the brutal reality of married life is somewhat swept under the carpet, where amused forgiveness is still possible and desirable. I do worry about Mrs. Wilkins in The Enchanted April, and how she and the other ladies will fare once they return to the less romantic English landscape and climate.
In Elizabeth and Her German Garden the narrator openly refers to her husband as the Man of Wrath and his humourless, judgemental pronouncements (which she excuses with an ironical laugh) make me want to slap him around the face at times. Clearly, the author herself did not find her first husband all that congenial either, and none of her marriages or love affairs were fully satisfactory. She emerges as a strong-willed and eccentric woman, very dreamy, absorbed by nature and literature, but still caring about other people’s opinions and needs.
Although I barely knew the plants she was listing and describing, I enjoyed the passion she felt for her garden, her sadness at not being able to do the digging herself, the detailed study of seed catalogues and obvious pride at the results. It is utterly charming and unusual, the very essence of Englishness, full of astute observations about people and cultures. And sometimes she voices opinions which sound remarkably modern.
To most German Hausfraus the dinners and the puddings are of paramount importance, and they pride themselves on keeping those parts of their houses that are seen in a state of perpetual and spotless perfection, and this is exceedingly praiseworthy; but, I would humbly inquire, are there not other things even more important?… It cannot be right to be the slave of one’s household gods, and I protest that if my furniture ever annoyed me by wanting to be dusted when I wanted to be doing something else… I should cast it all into the nearest bonfire and sit and warm my toes at the flames with great contentment…
The hours fly by shut up with those catalogues and with Duty snaring on the other side of the door. I don’t like Duty – everything in the least disagreeable is always sure to be one’s duty.
Well, trials are the portion of mankind, and gardeners have their share, and in any case it is better to be tried by plants than persons, seeing that with plants you know that it is you who are in the wrong, and with persons it is always the other way about…
Miss Jones looked as though she did not like Germans. I am afraid she despises us because she thinks we are foreigners – an attitude of mind quite British and wholly to her credit; but we, on the other hand, regard her as a foreigner, which, of course, makes things very complicated.
Happiness is so wholesome; it invigorates and warms me into piety far more effectually than any amount of trials and griefs… In spire of the protestations of some peculiarly constructed persons that they are the better for trials, I don’t believe it. Such things must sour us, just as happiness must sweeten us and make us kinder, and more gentle.
If your lot makes you cry and be wretched, get rid of it and take another; strike out for yourself; don’t listen to the shrieks of your relations, to their gibes or their entreaties; don’t let your own microscopic set prescribe your goings-out and comings-in; don’t be afraid of public opinion in the shape of the neighbour in the next house, when all the world is before you new and shining, and everything is possible, if you will only be energetic and independent and seize opportunity by the scruff of the neck.
If this sounds like a self-help book, it is not. And the narrator is quickly brought down to earth by her friend’s retort to the above exhortation:
To hear you talk, no one would ever imagine that you dream away your days in a garden with a book, and that you never in your life seized anything by the scruff of its neck.
It is this down-to-earth quality, this endearing exchange of firmly-held points of view, as well as the love of nature which makes this book such a delightful companion, although it is clear that the author is speaking from a position of privilege to which we may find it difficult to relate. A true mood-booster, which should not have been relegated to the dark, dank reserve stock cellars of the library.
On this first day of summer, I decided to write a poem about the first day of autumn. Don’t ask me why… I usually love summer. All the seasons, in fact. I am linking this up to dVerse Poets Pub Open Link Night #197, where all styles of poems welcome on this occasion.
Ardent berries she folds over
For birds to peck, hedgerows to trim.
A casual fling of hoary mantle
Is all she needs to silence doubters.
Pyres of leaves burnt in her honour,
Lawns raked neat, while woodland damp
Moves in shrubbery unnoticed.
Two mushrooms sulk in rotten greys.
The toad’s eyes wary as in the brambles
A hedgehog sinks in compost nest.
Times of plenty breed unlikely allies.
Someday you and I might still be friends.
It’s been far too busy and sociable this past week or so, and now it’s time to focus on writing once more. So here are some places where ‘escape’ is the name of the game and SO much writing would get done in close proximity to nature…
‘Let’s go to the Allondon’s source!’ they cried and I
expect a trickle or gentle gush, a scene of birth.
Not a waterfall pummelling the mossy rocks then
pausing in a pool to gather breath before
thundering in confidence across pastures, between trees.
It’s March and snows are melting, you tell me that
in summer it slows to suppuration.
So I wonder what you think of the slowing of my seasons
and stumble in my gait.
The river Allondon is unusual: it springs out of the ground as a waterfall, so is already a considerable stream as it rustles and hustles and meanders its way through the Pays de Gex to join the Rhone. I am linking this poem to the wonderfully diverse offerings on display at Open Link Night for dVerse Poets.